Is There a GIS Career Ladder?

October 25, 2023

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There is no GIS career ladder. Let me clarify before you yell at me.

I am NOT suggesting there is not career mobility and growth within the GIS community. I am NOT suggesting that you cannot build a career in GIS. You most certainly can. And you are! In fact, if you go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics O*NET site, you’ll happily see the sunshine symbol next to ‘Geographic Information Systems Technologists and Technicians’ designating a ‘bright outlook’! It’s not an anthropomorphized sun emoji with a smiley face,

 but that doesn’t stop me from seeing it that way. I do not believe that there is one clear path of upward steps for a GIS career. You know, like a ladder. There is not a widely accepted ‘Start Here’ point of origin, or any subsequent directives to ‘now step here,’ and then up, up, and away you go. I appreciate Nathan Heazlewood’s diagramming efforts to illustrate the many directions people might go in this field. Instead of a career ladder, GIS seems more like career scaffolding that you construct as you go or maybe even career parkour (scaling walls, flipping over banisters, lateral ladder jumps, etc.).

Title Trajectory

Imagine we put typical GIS job titles like Technician, Analyst, Developer, Coordinator, and Manager onto big post-it notes. First, we ask a room of GIS professionals to stick them on the wall in hierarchical career order from entry-level roles to senior positions. While I do not think there would be 100% consensus, I do believe that several of these roles would reach a general agreement on where they belong based on the skills and tasks that GIS professionals associate with each title.

Now imagine doing the same exercise with a room of non-GIS individuals responsible for hiring GIS professionals at their organization. I am not sure the notes would ever make it on the wall, or if they did, that they would be anything other than a layered, overlapping GIS career blob. As these individuals discussed each job title, they would find that from one organization to the next, the same skills and tasks were performed by different GIS roles with no real order or hierarchy evident.

GIS job titles coordinate across organizations as well as women’s pants sizes across clothing brands – that is to say, they do not coordinate at all. Dive into the job descriptions of different GIS jobs and you quickly spot this issue. Some Analyst positions read like Managers, some Technicians sound like Programmers, and some Specialists positions seem like they are the only GIS role in a company left to fend for their geospatial selves and do it ‘all’ (even if the company doesn’t know what ‘all’ is, just that they want and need it).

But you don’t have to take my word for it (Reading Rainbow reference anyone?). Matt Forrest recently compiled information from 7300 GIS or geospatial jobs listings to investigate GIS salaries and skills

One of the main takeaways is the sheer diversity of job titles and the lack of career clarity in terms of what each role does, how they interact, and how (or if) they are distinct. The analysis of free text job descriptions shows that there is not consistency on which skills are associated with which roles. For a comparative look at requested skills over time, check out previous research on GIS job listings from 2007 to 2014.

Translating Opportunities

With GIS job titles used interchangeably by different organizations, you must dive into job descriptions to get a sense of what the offered role entails. So, GIS job seekers are also translators, connecting writeups with tangible GIS skills to see how the role matches their interests and abilities. Depending on who wrote the ad, this can be challenging.

I imagine it does not take GIS professionals exceptionally long to spot a GIS job ad NOT written by someone who knows GIS. In fact, I bet you quickly refine your skills to spy those written by GIS professionals vs. IT professionals vs. HR managers vs. person-who-drew-the-short-straw-and-maybe-just-used-ChatGPT. Frankly, how the ad reads can give insights into the job itself – the level of thought and care put into developing the role, the level of GIS knowledge in an organization, or the extent that they know (or don’t know) what they want. Hey, we do not have much to go from sometimes, so a little healthy speculation from the small clues in a couple paragraphs can’t hurt, right?

If you have run into this challenge in your job search and career path, you are not alone. When people post on this GIS job title / career path topic, it hits a nerve. Check out this LinkedIn thread or this Reddit discussion. Both conversations are examples of one of the best ways to combat GIS career confusion – share your experiences so we can consolidate our GIS career navigation tips and tricks.

Love, Talent, and Getting Paid

During one of my embarrassingly frequent Instagram scrolling sessions, I skimmed some sort of inspirational / motivational / self-improvement / productivity post that said something about doing what you love, doing what you are good at, and doing what gets you paid. Later I thought about how these categories could be useful for parsing through GIS job ads and our own careers.

First, consider your own GIS skills. List which ones you love, which ones you feel proficient, and which ones fall into both of those categories. It might be useful to have a third, brutally honest category of GIS skills you dislike or just cannot do…yet.  

Second, remember that job ad translation we talked about? Take some GIS job ads, translate their descriptions into GIS skills to drop into the ‘GIS things you can get paid’ for category. How do these paid skills from each ad match up to your personal GIS loves and talents? More essentially, how do they match up with your non-favorite GIS skills? Some job ads provide breakdowns of how much of the role’s time is spent on various tasks to help you avoid those less than favorite skills being a soul-draining amount of your job. But if they don’t provide those? Hey, just ask! It is important to know and avoid disappointment and misunderstanding.

Make Your Career Map

GIS professionals have a shared superpower: diverse backgrounds and unique paths. Think about this idea. Instead of hiding the twists and turns and apologizing for your ‘nontraditional’ GIS background, celebrate the nuances and experiences that brought you there.

Amelia Travers (who studied geography and GIS among other things) of Avid Research shares Australian STEM career stories on her podcast. But she also makes watercolor career maps from these conversations. They are excellent illustrations of how differently inspired and influenced our career journeys can be. She encourages it as an exercise to fight imposter syndrome, and a way to realize that you are, in fact, NOT boring. It is not just an artistic rendition of the bullet points on your resume. It is an exploration of life experiences intertwined with career choices and opportunities.

If every past step is part of the journey to our present, then shredding papers in a law office led me to be geospatial. Grading linguistics papers led me to be geospatial. Rearranging furniture at home with Mom and walking around on construction sites with Dad led me to be geospatial.

Make your own career map, revel in its quirks and unexpected destinations. There is no GIS career ladder. There is just your GIS career and it is wonderfully one-of-a-kind.


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